“We thought we had an understanding with the Russians”

“WE THOUGHT WE HAD AN UNDERSTANDING WITH THE RUSSIANS”….Jonathan Landay has a pretty fascinating piece about the war in Georgia posted tonight at the McClatchy site. I’ll take note of two particular fascinations. First, Landay’s sources insist that even though the Bush administration had “fretted for months” over Russian provocations in Georgia, they did nothing to encourage Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to believe the United States would back him if he started a war:

The Russian actions against Georgia “seemed designed to provoke a Georgian over-reaction,” said a senior U.S. official. “We have always counseled restraint to the Georgians.”

….A “parade” of U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visited Tbilisi to urge Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin [an excuse] to act, a State Department officials said.

Second, it turns out we had a sort of tacit agreement with the Russians about how the fighting would go:

U.S. officials said that they believed they had an understanding with Russia that any response to Georgian military action would be limited to South Ossetia.

“We knew they were going to go crack heads. We told them again and again not to do this,” the State Department official said. “We thought we had an understanding with the Russians that any response would be South Ossetia-focused. Clearly it’s not.”

“We knew they were going to go crack heads”? And we had an “understanding” that they wouldn’t go any further than South Ossetia? That sure doesn’t make it sound as if we warned the Russians off in very strong terms.

To summarize: (1) We strongly counseled our good friend Saakashvili not to do anything stupid, and he did it anyway. Which we sort of expected. This is a potential NATO ally? (2) We as much as invited the Russians into Georgia by telling them we wouldn’t mind them slapping down Saakashvili too much as long as they confined themselves to South Ossetia.

The notion that we did nothing to encourage Saakashvili in his attack on South Ossetia might just be ass covering from Landay’s sources. Who knows? But the “understanding” with Russia certainly isn’t, since I can’t interpret this in any way that reflects well on the Bush administration. However, it certainly explains why Bush himself didn’t really seem very perturbed by the whole affair until the Russians drove their tanks into Georgia proper. If they’d contented themselves with merely swallowing up South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it sounds as though he would have been happy enough to let them.